Windy City Media Group Frontpage News

THE VOICE OF CHICAGO'S GAY, LESBIAN, BI, TRANS AND QUEER COMMUNITY SINCE 1985

home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2021-09-01
DOWNLOAD ISSUE
Donate

Sponsor
Sponsor

  WINDY CITY TIMES

Northlight Theatre takes audiences to 'Charm' school
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond
2015-10-07

This article shared 5052 times since Wed Oct 7, 2015
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email


When beloved Chicago transgender advocate 'Mama' Gloria Allen attends the opening night and world premiere of Charm, presented by the Skokie-based Northlight Theatre in the intimate setting of the Steppenwolf Garage Oct. 14, it will be one of the most extraordinary evenings in her 70 years of life.

It has been a life spent nurturing young transgender and gender nonconforming people in the discovery of their beauty, confidence, voice and noble place in a world still reluctant to offer them her treasured embrace.

The rest of the audience surrounding Allen may not understand just how unique of a position she is in. For as the houselights and chatter fade into silent anticipation, Allen will be as nervously excited as the actors preparing to take the stage in a play inspired by her own life and work.

According to Northlight Theatre, Charm centers on "the colorful inner workings of an etiquette class taught by Mama Darleena Andrews, an African-American transgender woman, in an LGBTQ organization known as The Center. Mama attempts to share her rules of proper behavior with a youth group ranging in sexuality, race and gender identity from a Latina transwoman to a cisgender straight Black couple to a gay suburban teen. Though her students initially struggle to see how etiquette relates to their daily battles with identity, poverty and prejudice, Mama's powerful love and unapologetic attitude eventually win them over."

"It's so surreal that a producer and a writer thought about me and decided to put me out there," Allen told Windy City Times. "The audience won't know that I was the inspiration for this play."

That inspiration was seeded in 2012 when Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones read a feature article about Allen detailing aspects of her life and how it inspired the charm school she ran at Lakeview's Center on Halsted. There she provided loving guidance to Chicago's homeless LGBTQ youth on how to live and present with dignity and self-respect.

"She is the essence of a Chicago story," Jones said. "This is a city that burnt down and had to rebuild, that had to turn a river around. It's a city that realizes that it has a racist and sexist background but is trying to grow, change and include. That's the story that needs to be told over and over again."

So Jones met award-winning playwright Philip Dawkins for breakfast and told him there might be a play in Allen's own history of growth, change and inclusion.

"BJ said 'I think this an amazing story about our community. She sounds like a fascinating woman'," Dawkins explained. "So I called [Allen] through some mutual friends and she couldn't have been more gracious and charming."

Dawkins—who has garnered city and nationwide acclaim for works including Miss Marx or the Involuntary Side Effect of Living, The Homosexuals and Failure: A Love Story—attended one of Allen's charm schools at the Center on Halsted.

That was all it took.

"I called BJ and I said 'this woman is like my grandmother. She is somebody I would be excited to spend some time with even if no play comes out of it. We're on to something,'" Dawkins recalled.

What they were on to was a story no one else has told and one that became a passion-project for Jones, Dawkins and everyone involved, including the actors, designers and technicians as well as Northlight itself which took the unusual step of committing its resources to staging Charm at a different venue.

Jones explained that the Steppenwolf Garage Theatre was chosen because of its proximity to the hub of Allen's work and its intimate layout, which will allow audiences to feel as if they are also students of the charm school, just as Dawkins had been during his script's development.

"Philip would constantly come to charm school and sit in on my class, watch what I was doing and the response I was getting," Allen said. "He would take notes and talk to the students. I was excited just for him to be there and see the work that I do. It was such a good time."

Dawkins attended class for the next six months. Identifying as queer, at first he was frightened when he introduced himself, in an out-of-place way, as he introduced himself to the students as a writer collecting material.

Characteristically, Allen would have none of it.

"I felt immensely welcome," Dawkins said. "Mama is so good at making people feel individually welcome within a group. The overwhelming feeling throughout the class is generosity. Everybody is coming to that room for a different reason and from a different place. What I found, more often than not, was people hungry to share their stories. The homeless community, displaced teens and people with no place to go don't get listened to a lot and the opportunity to come to a room where there's a woman who stands up in the front who says 'I'm here to listen to you and give you my advice on what I just heard' is huge. It was comforting and inviting to be a part of it."

In talking with Allen, the playwright was awed by the narrative of a woman born in a Kentucky farmhouse in 1945 who took the Southern grace, strength and loving acceptance bequeathed to her by her mother, grandmother and great aunt on a journey of self-discovery through the tumultuous cornerstones of the Black and LGBTQ civil-rights movements, including being present at the 1969 Stonewall riots.

"You can either read about history or you can go out to tea with history," Dawkins said. "[Allen] is so open about her past and what she's gone through is both beautiful and harsh. History is sometimes just sitting across from us. It made me hungry for a Chicago that I never knew."

With so much material, Dawkins initially struggled with the kind of story he wanted to tell. He began to develop a first draft for what would eventually become Charm.

"We knew we wanted it to focus on [Allen's] charm class," Dawkins explained. "That hasn't changed from draft to draft. Because every character in the play is somewhere in the trans continuum, it becomes less about people sitting around talking about how trans they are and more about generational divides and how we take care of and nurture each other across those lines. In this idea of ushering in future generations while respecting the past, I tried to model characters who represented extremes in the world along those generational and class divides."

Dawkins sent the first draft to Allen and waited for her reaction.

"I read it from cover-to-cover and I was amazed," Allen said. "I had to pinch myself that this was really happening. It was a real thrill."

It is a sentiment shared by Jones, who has served as Northlight's artistic director for 18 of the theater's 41 seasons. During his tenure, the organization has provided a venue for multiple new works in accord with the theater's mission "to promote change of perspective and encourage compassion by exploring the depth of our humanity across a bold spectrum of theatrical experiences."

"Charm is in the sweet spot of our mission," Jones said, "and both in conversation with her and as depicted in our play, Mama is the essence of it—her sense of welcome, of 'yes and…' in the theatrical mindset of accepting others and moving together in community."

Jones is directing the play. Both he and Dawkins found an enthusiastic collaborator in Allen, who read each of the drafts Dawkins submitted and is currently sitting in on a few rehearsals watching the nine-member cast inject their talent and perspectives into not only the physical manifestations of words on a page but the actual lives that influenced them.

"It's the story of my students, but with me in mind," Allen said. "It's fun watching them. I can relate to what's being talked about. Some of the young adults [in the play] have bad attitudes and need somebody to listen to them. That's originally what my school was about—being able to show the love to them. The message [of Charm] is that we're human beings and we need to be treated like that. Everybody has a problem. Some are able to cope with it and some aren't. Some of them need a person, like Mama D in the play, to help out. People need to learn about us."

For Dawkins and Jones, their education about the transgender community and its challenges grew in exponential symbiosis with the play's development. According to Jones, it has enhanced his understanding of human nature even within the habitual confines of a theatrical mindset.

"What Philip taught me is that there is no one [trans] community," Jones said. "As a cisgender male, one has a tendency to think it is binary. That is simply not true. Its complexity encourages us to understand the broader spectrum. Being in the theater, it's easy to think of people as either one thing or another—typecasting as 'that's what this director does or this is what this actor does'. The human tendency to codify, in a simplistic way, people's natures is wrong. We need to get more granular in our observations and broaden our understanding. It's more complex. The job is bigger. As Mama says 'you're teaching me a whole new set of pronouns'."

"I knew that there was a turning of the backs from trans people," Dawkins added. "I didn't know how far turned away people can be. The lack of support is depressing. Where we fall into trouble is when we start putting adjectives on people that describe how different they are and we sideline them. It's a ridiculous, selfish exercise that doesn't help things."

Currently on hiatus, Allen's charm school was a haven where such adjectives simply did not exist—a safe space in every sense of the word and one who's singular existence did not go unnoticed by a playwright who has written about community, change and the human need and ability to express desires and dreams.

"The fact that we live in a city and a world with places where people are uninvited must change," Dawkins said. "The conversation around that must be one which challenges the idea that there are spaces that don't belong to some people. I live in Boystown and I see the efforts by people to uninvite others to our neighborhood. Whether because of color, class or income, people pointing at anybody and saying 'that person does not belong in this part of the city' is the greatest evil for any neighborhood."

Ironically, the resulting lack of opportunity that trans individuals face in finding work even in the arts led to a challenge when it came to Northlight's year-long effort to cast the play's three trans-identified characters and, in particular, the lead role.

Mama Darleena Andrews is played by Dexter Zollicoffer—an accomplished stage and television actor but, unlike his character's inspiration, a cisgender male.

"We reached out to casting directors on both coasts," Jones explained. "We advertised in all sorts of publications. We were extensive and exhaustive in our efforts. I reached out to Alexandra Billings for help in finding folks."

Billings is a celebrated actress who performed throughout Chicago before becoming the first transgender woman to play such a role on television in Romy and Michelle—A New Beginning.

"We did have some people who identified as trans audition," Dawkins said.

"But they were in their 20s," Jones added. "So that wasn't going to work as [the 70-year-old] Mama Gloria."

"My question is 'why couldn't we find a 60-plus-year-old African American actress who is trans to play this part?'" Dawkins wondered. "That to me is an issue. How can we provide more opportunities for trans people? What's exciting to me and allows me to be hopeful about the future is the young trans people who showed up [to audition]. We can put opportunities out there that say 'don't stop acting. There are roles for you past your 50s.' If you are a young [actor] who thinks that transitioning is going to destroy your career, I want to be part of the theatre makers who say 'that is 100 percent not true'."

"At the end of the day, we feel we've chosen the best actors who came in to audition for us for the roles and who will do honor to Philip's words, the spirit of the play and Mama Gloria," Jones noted.

It is much in that spirit that Allen herself has given her stamp of approval to each of Charm's actors, even offering her own encouragement to Zollicoffer when she met the artist during the first read-through of the script.

"I talked with the entire cast and Dexter was so thrilled at meeting me," Allen recalled. "But he said, 'I'm not going to look like Mama Gloria,' and I told him, 'Don't even worry about that.' I'm not an actress. I couldn't play the part so I sat in and did the make-up for him and he looked fantastic. I gave him self-confidence while he could study my mannerisms. He is playing the essence of me. The audience aren't going to see me up there, but my spirit. I don't think it's a bad thing to have a male playing that because he's basically going through the same things I've gone through. You know, trans people may get mad about it but they were not showing up for the part. We're all in the LGBTQ basket and we have to learn how to embrace each other. There are no boundaries. You're a human being and I love that and I want people to know that."

When Allen takes her seat in the Steppenwolf Garage auditorium on opening night alongside her family and friends, she will be as much rooting for Zolliciffer and the cast as she is for her fellow audience members to understand the struggles of a community who needed "to go into a safe place to connect with each other and feel 'hey, I'm not the only one in this plight. There is someone else who is suffering just as I am.'"

"I hope the audience gets the sense that trans people are human too," Allen added. "I want them to look at us in a different and positive light."

It is a desire echoed by the two men who fell under her spell of inclusion, understanding and compassion—qualities which became the watch words of the play they created together.

"Charm is a multi-dimensional Rubik's Cube of points-of-view—a learning and growing experience that's completely accessible," Jones said. "The notion that we have to watch out for each other no matter who we are and that we are all in this together is a huge take-away. The audience, in their proximity to the piece and its people, are going to feel that. It's impossible not to."

"I want people to walk away from Charm with 'holy crap, this is a play about me, my family, my neighbors and my community'," Dawkins added. "Mama Gloria is, in every sense, a Chicago-bred community organizer. The best-case scenario would be this play starting conversation and questions around 'What can I do?'"

In order to put an exclamation point on that scenario, there will be talk-back sessions held during the run of the play from Oct. 14 through Nov. 8.

According to Northlight, the sessions will not only include members of the artistic staff and will also feature guest speakers who specialize in LGBTQ issues:

—Oct. 22: Scout Bratt, outreach and education director, Chicago Women's Health Center

—Oct. 24: Josie Paul, director of TransLife Center, Chicago House

—Oct. 29: Rebecca Kling, program manager of TransTech Social Enterprises and board member at Illinois Safe Schools Alliance

—Nov. 7: Dr. Robert Garofalo, director of the Gender and Sex Development Program at Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago

For tickets and more information, visit http://www.northlight.org/pages/on_stage/393.php.

More about Charm is at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/SCOTTISH-PLAY-SCOTT-Creating-Charm/53069.html .


This article shared 5052 times since Wed Oct 7, 2015
facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email





Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


  ARTICLES YOU MIGHT LIKE

Gay News

Brittany Devon meets a 'Platonic Girlfriend'
2021-09-15
Queer, genderfluid actor Brittany Devon has created a brand new project to explore with Platonic Girlfriend. It is the story of a relationship between straight woman Alice and a queer, nonbinary person named Dev. Devon stars ...


Gay News

Frank Ferrante to return as 'Groucho' for one night
2021-09-15
Actor/director Frank Ferrante returns to his internationally heralded stage performance for one night only in "An Evening With Groucho" on Tuesday, Oct. 26, at the Spiegeltent ZaZou, on the 14th floor of the Cambria Hotel Chicago ...


Gay News

Gov. Pritzker signs transformative energy legislation for Illinois
2021-09-15
--From a press release - CHICAGO — Delivering on principles previously laid out, Governor JB Pritzker signed landmark legislation into law that puts the state on a path toward 100% clean energy, invests in training a diverse workforce for the jobs ...


Gay News

THEATER Out actor Dan Butler to be in 'When Harry Met Rehab'
2021-09-15
Don Clark, a Chicago-based film/theater producer as well as co-owner of the Chicago Magic Lounge, will present the world premiere of When Harry Met Rehab—a comedy that takes sobriety seriously and is based loosely on the ...


Gay News

Students urged to apply for Musical Theatre Awards
2021-09-14
Broadway in Chicago is inviting high schools across Illinois to participate in the 11th Annual Illinois High School Musical Theatre Awards. These awards celebrate excellence in high school theater throughout the state. Beginning Thursday, Sept. 16, ...


Gay News

First Floor Theater announces 2021-22 season
2021-09-13
--From a press release - CHICAGO, IL (Sept. 13, 2021) — First Floor Theater is excited to announce their ninth live-production season, featuring one world premiere and one Chicago premiere, along with a second round of The Blueprint Commission, it' new ...


Gay News

AstonRep Theatre Company announces 2021-22 season:
2021-09-13
--From a press release - CHICAGO (Sept. 13, 2021) — AstonRep Theatre Company is pleased to welcome back live audiences this fall, kicking off with a revival of Yasmina Reza's frenetic dark comedy God of Carnage, translated by Christopher Hampton and ...


Gay News

NATIONAL Teachers, GLAAD talks HRC, 9/11 items, Dr. Rachel Levine
2021-09-12
In North Carolina, a former teacher won a lawsuit against Charlotte Catholic High School and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Charlotte after he lost his job following an announcement on Facebook that he planned to marry ...


Gay News

WORLD False report, Indian activist dies, fashion exhibit, LGBT Awards
2021-09-12
In Spain, a man who claimed eight hooded men carved an anti-gay slur on his butt using a knife in a horrific hate crime later said the act was consensual, according to out.com. According to police ...


Gay News

THEATER 'Dear Mom, I'm Gay!' on Oct. 1-2
2021-09-11
Dear Mom, I'm Gay!—a workshop of a new musical by David Dilsizian—is running at The Jarvis Square Theater, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. It will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 1; and 2 and ...


Gay News

Saint Sebastian Players to perform four shows during 40th season
2021-09-10
--From a press release - The Saint Sebastian Players (SSP) announce the company is resuming live, in-person production with an expanded 40th Anniversary Season. The four-play lineup celebrates genres that have been popular with SSP ...


Gay News

Victory Gardens Theater announces plans for 2021-22 season
2021-09-10
--From a press release - Chicago, IL— Victory Gardens Theater announces their 2021/2022 Season, which will be presented in-person at the Biograph Theater in Lincoln Park. The season will feature three mainstage productions: Queen of the Night by travis tate, the ...


Gay News

Broken Nose Theatre presenting Black LGBTQ drama 'Kingdom' Oct. 4-24
2021-09-10
Broken Nose Theatre is launching its tenth season with an audio adaptation of its hit 2018 play Kingdom, written by resident playwright Michael Allen Harris and directed by Manny Buckley. Kingdom features ensemble members RjW Mays ...


Gay News

DANCE Ensemble Espanol to open Auditorium Theatre season Oct. 16
2021-09-10
Ensemble Espanol Spanish Dance Theater, in residence at Northeastern Illinois University, will return to the Auditorium Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 16, at 7:30 p.m. The company will mark the finale performance of its 45th-anniversary "Zafiro Flamenco ...


Gay News

'Close-Up with Carmen' Sept. 9 at Center on Halsted
2021-09-08
'Close-Up with Carmen'—about the intersection of drag and opera—will take place Thursday, Sept. 9, at 6 p.m. at the Hoover-Leppen Theatre at Center on Halsted, 3656 N. Halsted St. During this event, participants will discuss cross-dressi ...


 



Copyright © 2021 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.

 

 

 

TRENDINGBREAKINGPHOTOS







Sponsor
Sponsor


 



Donate


About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Advanced Search     
Windy City Queercast      Queercast Archives     
Press  Releases      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast      Blogs     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Privacy Policy     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.